Book Review: The Deadliest Lie by June Trop

Miriam bat Isaac has dreams of becoming an alchemist. But those dreams may shatter before they even begin when scrolls containing valuable formulas of the Alchemical League are stolen from her home. If those scrolls fall into the wrong hands, life could become very bad for the Jews of Alexandria. That pressure forces Miriam to consider that her own family may be to blame. Her father on the cusp of financial ruin, her brother raising money to travel to Gladiator school, and her fiance jealous of her alchemy; all have motives for stealing the scrolls. Miriam must navigate the city’s underbelly–where the Romans are the least of her worries–in order to discover a thief in her own home.

This book really grated on my nerves. I think the reason for that can be broken down into two parts.

First, I understand that it’s set in Alexandria, Egypt in the first century AD, and I’m among the majority of readers who only have basic knowledge of that time period. But there is a fine line between setting the scene for readers and telling them details that have little to do with the stories. This book can’t even see that line in its rear-view mirror. Four pages were dedicated to chariot racing in Chapter 3 simply because a character saw a speech by someone who liked to watch chariot races. And while the use of Latin words alone didn’t bother me, but the parenthetical translations did.

The second reason this book frustrated me was the tendency with conversations to over-explain or to use them to describe something rather than just show me. The narrator has a conversation with her aunt about her identity, and she gives examples as if to prove her aunt’s conclusions about her are valid. Using conversation to provide description happened several times as well, including her aunt offering and describing a meal along with her brother describing details of their shared past. These were things that seemed put there for the reader’s benefit and really interrupted the flow of dialogue.

The story took quite a few chapters to get going, at least for me. The subplot of Miriam not wanting to get married started right away, but nothing was mentioned about the stolen scrolls until after chapter 4. Eventually the pace did pick up. However, I found sympathizing with Miriam very difficult at that point. The reason may be because I expected a lot more tension and danger than the story presented.

All of that being said, the amount of research that the author did for this book is completely evident. I have no doubt that she knows what she’s talking about.

I have a hard time recommending this book to readers as a compelling mystery. But I would say that it does give an interesting look into the life of a Jewish Roman citizen in Alexandria during the first century AD.

Rating:

The Deadliest Lie by June Trop is published by Bell Bridge Books.

*I received an advanced copy of this book in return for an unbiased review.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Deadliest Lie by June Trop

  1. I can’t believe it!
    I can’t believe Stone and I read the same book. In any case, I think he missed the point. The book is a mystery, with a clever solution, but it’s primarily an historical novel that paints an exquisite image of First Century CE Alexandria.
    I thought the digressions about the chariot races (and the beast fighter facing the Numidian lion) showed the casual cruelty of Roman professional sports, especially because Miriam’s brother dreams of becoming a gladiator. (By the way, you too may be struck by the institutionalized cheating in the Roman contests and the parallel with our professional sports today, all to make the games more exciting.)
    More than a mystery and more than a travelogue, I found the book to be the story of a young woman in quandary, trying to choose a future for herself in the context of a family scarred by the death of a mother, a domineering father, and an irresponsible brother.
    In short, unlike Stone, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, read its smooth and often delightful prose in one unexpected late-night sitting, immediately drawn into Miriam’s plight, which became high-stakes as soon as the scrolls disappeared.
    I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in a woman’s coming of age, family relationships, Roman Egypt, and the life of Jews in the Diaspora before the destruction of the Second Temple. And you’ll get to enjoy the twist of a mystery besides.

    • Thanks for replying to my post, Sam!

      Two readers can read the same book and have completely different takeaways from the story. I was under the impression from the book summary that it would be a mystery. As a result, I felt pretty disappointed about I figured out who stole the scrolls long before Miriam even realized that they were gone.

      I also disliked the fact that the narrator felt the need to over-explain in the scenes. I think that bothered me more than the lack of mystery. Did you notice that as well?

      • So you figured out who stole the scrolls. But did you figure out the how? I thought that was the cleverest aspect of the mystery.

      • While I didn’t figure out the reason for the theft until the big reveal at the end, I figured out how it happened within the first third of the book. I’m a fan of “who-done-it” mysteries (and have read a lot), so I tend to lose interest if I can guess the villain so early on. I probably would have enjoyed the mystery had it been more complicated and contained more subtle clues.

  2. My response to THE DEADLIEST LIE, the novel to launch the Miriam bat Isaac series, is in accord with Sam Frank’s. It brings Ancient Alexandria to life and sets up a convincing set of characters for the rest of the series. My eyes raced through the last half of the book, when Miriam, to save the lives of her colleagues, be accepted into the League of Alchemists, and keep a secret from her heartthrob, risks her life to recover the stolen alchemical documents.

    The book is a mystery but much more. It’s a coming of age story and romance set in a splendid but dangerous city.

  3. I think Mr. Timmerman is referring to my review of Trop’s book on Amazon.com. Here’s what I wrote in response to Stone’s review:

    I can’t believe it!

    I can’t believe Stone and I read the same book. In any case, I think she missed the point. The book is a mystery, with a clever solution, but it’s primarily an historical novel that paints an exquisite image of First Century CE Alexandria.

    I thought the digressions about the chariot races (and the beast fighter facing the Numidian lion) showed the casual cruelty of Roman professional sports, especially because Miriam’s brother dreams of becoming a gladiator. (By the way, you too may be struck by the institutionalized cheating in the Roman contests and the parallel with our professional sports today, all to make the games more exciting.)

    More than a mystery and more than a travelogue, I found the book to be the story of a young woman in quandary, trying to choose a future for herself in the context of a family scarred by the death of a mother, a domineering father, and an irresponsible brother.

    In short, unlike Stone, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, read its smooth and often delightful prose in one unexpected late-night sitting, immediately drawn into Miriam’s plight, which became high-stakes as soon as the scrolls disappeared.

    I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in a woman’s coming of age, family relationships, Roman Egypt, and the life of Jews in the Diaspora before the destruction of the Second Temple. And you’ll get to enjoy the twist of a mystery besides.

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